26 November 2019

Democratic Republic of Congo

Murder by translation

Two UN investigators were killed in cold blood in 2017, their deaths filmed and shared online. Nearly three years later, their killers remain at large. Tristan McConnell investigates

By Tristan McConnell

This story appears in the new edition of Tortoise Quarterly. Depending on your membership, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print or as an ebook. To buy a copy of our short book of long reads visit tortoisemedia.com/shop

In the video of their deaths, Zaida Catalán and Michael J. Sharp are shepherded, shoeless, through scrubby forest. The two United Nations investigators, whose job it was to recommend human rights abusers and arms embargo busters for sanctions, were killed on a Sunday afternoon in March 2017 in Kasai, a southern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo that is larger than the United Kingdom but with barely a stretch of unpotholed paved road.

They are accompanied by at least 13 men: some wear red bandanas, some carry 12-gauge shotguns, others hold knives. Sharp talks in French; Catalán is silent. The two are ordered to sit on the ground facing each other. A few moments later, Sharp is shot at close range, then Catalán. She stumbles to her feet and runs a few paces before falling. Then two men take turns using a knife to cut off Catalán’s head. The film, which surfaced two weeks after the killings, abruptly ends.

Catalán and Sharp are seen in the video

Catalán, 36, a Swede, and Sharp, 34, an American, were members of the Group of Experts, a UN Security Council-mandated team of six investigators monitoring war crimes in Congo. Catalán’s expertise was in humanitarian issues, while Sharp, the group’s leader, specialised in armed groups.

Two and a half years later the killings remain unsolved, but slowly the layers of deliberate deceptions, false accounts, face-saving cover-ups and callous disregard – both in Congo and at the UN – have begun to dissolve, the tale of a deadly ambush by murderous rebels giving way to something closer to the truth, and far darker.

The site of the Catalán and Sharp murders was only 45 miles from Kananga, the provincial capital where they had last been seen on the morning of 12 March 2017. But in Kasai that counts as remote. It took more than two weeks for Catalán and Sharp’s colleagues to find them: they were carelessly buried, soil heaped hurriedly into shallow graves, the heel of a foot left poking through the earth in the forest clearing where they were shot dead.

A forensic team in white hazmat suits disinterred the bodies close to the village of Moyo-Musuila. Although there was little doubt they were indeed those of Catalán and Sharp, identification was hampered by the absence of Catalán’s head. An autopsy later found that she had bled to death after being shot multiple times, and was subsequently decapitated. Sharp was also killed by multiple gunshots, including to the head. The recovery of pellets from wounds in both bodies suggested the murder weapon in each case was a shotgun.

Catalán and Sharp are the first – and so far only – UN investigators to be killed in the line of duty anywhere in the world, and Kinshasa was eager that blame should fall on a Kasai-based insurgency known as Kamwina Nsapu that was challenging central authority and irritating the president.

Ghanaian soldiers affiliated to United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in a village in the district of Kamonia, one of the areas that saw the heaviest fightings during the conflicts in restive Kasai region

Six weeks after their deaths, officials in Kinshasa held a press conference, where they revealed the existence of the 6min 17sec video, shot on a mobile phone, of the killings. “The images speak for themselves,” the then information minister Lambert Mende said after playing it for the journalists. “It is not our soldiers that we see in the video executing the two UN workers but the terrorists of the Kamwina Nsapu militia.”

The government also took the opportunity to air another snuff movie, this time showing headless bodies in police uniforms, to bolster the claim that decapitation is a signature of the militia.

After the video’s release, the government moved quickly to prosecute some of those who appear in the video and a prize witness named Jean Bosco Mukanda quickly came forward claiming to have seen the murders, providing testimony implicating local Kamwina Nsapu leaders. By June a military tribunal in Kananga had taken up the case. The government’s simple story, which it laid out at the trial with Mukanda’s ready testimony, was that Catalán and Sharp naively wandered into a conflict, were waylaid by Kamwina Nsapu bandits, robbed and killed.

This hermetic narrative was neat, convenient and suspicious.

 

President Joseph Kabila’s corrupt, violent regime had kept successive Groups of Experts busy since he succeeded his assassinated father in 2001, presiding over the looting of the country and continued conflict. Despite stepping down in December – reluctantly and two years late – he remains powerful, the puppet master to his co-opted successor Félix Tshisikedi. Parliament and the judiciary are still stacked with his allies and loyalists and it is Kabila’s, not Tshisikedi’s, presidential portrait that still hangs on walls around the country.

Violence in Congo most often afflicts the eastern Kivus and Ituri provinces – where an Ebola outbreak is currently spreading – but the Kasai region where Catalán and Sharp were killed has its own history of political turmoil. Independent Congo’s first crisis began there and successive presidents found the region to be a thorn in their sides. Congo’s most tenacious oppositionist, Étienne Tshisekedi (father of Félix), was born in Kananga and made Kasai his stronghold as he opposed first Mobutu, then his successor, Laurent Kabila (father of Joseph), and finally Joseph Kabila. In retaliation, Kasai has suffered even more abject neglect than the rest of the country, leaving its residents deeply impoverished.

As the date for the 2016 elections loomed and Kabila sought avenues to stay in power, an attempt was made to co-opt an influential traditional leader in Kasai for political gain. But the move went awry and the chief, known as Kamwina Nsapu, was killed, triggering the insurgency that bears his name. Violent confrontations saw soldiers armed with assault rifles and heavy weapons battle villagers carrying shotguns and knives. Even by Congolese standards the scale of violence was “alarming and unusual”, said Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch.

Scores of mass graves were filled with the remains of Kamwina Nsapu fighters, or civilians suspected of supporting them, and villages were burned. Around 5,000 people were killed and, at the height of the upheaval, a million and a half people were forced from their homes.

People wait for their ration of food at a distribution centre in Kasala, in the restive region of Kasai, central Democratic Republic of Congo

Jason Stearns, at New York University’s Congo Research Group and one of Sharp’s predecessors as coordinator of the Group of Experts, told me that the Congolese army’s extreme brutality in Kasai was “unprecedented” even by the standards of a military well-known for its excesses. “You have this local, ragtag militia group that protested against the Congolese government and in response the army goes in and responds with extraordinary and often indiscriminate violence. This was obviously very organised: there were orders given to deal with this in the way they dealt with it.”

Having failed dismally to win Kasai over, the unrest there became one of the various reasons the Kabila government offered for delaying elections. The vote never happened and, by early 2017, the president was under increasing pressure both at home and abroad after ignoring constitutional term limits, refusing to cede power and violently suppressing the countrywide protests that followed.

Then, a mobile phone video showing soldiers executing civilians was leaked to the press, leading the UN’s human rights chief to call for an inquiry. These atrocities were exactly the kind of thing the Group of Experts was appointed to investigate and so Catalán and Sharp set off from Kananga into the febrile heart of Congo’s latest conflagration. Their murders were instantly inseparable from Congo’s fraught political context and a history of impunity that begins at the top.

 

The government’s version of Catalán and Sharp’s murders is beguilingly simple, playing to stereotypical notions of chaotic, innate brutality and outsider naivety, but is contradicted by a close viewing of the very evidence on which it rests, the mobile phone video.

Just before the killings begin, an obscuring cover is removed from the lens, dramatically improving the image clarity for the crucial scenes to follow. Catalán and Sharp walk barefoot, having already been stripped of their possessions. At the moment the shooting starts at least one man darts away in surprise while others appear prepped and act efficiently. “One thing that’s clear from the video is that this was an organised hit,” said Stearns. “This was not some guys at a roadblock who all of a sudden got upset.”

The video’s audio track, too, contains evidence. Kamwina Nsapu is a local movement and its members speak a local language called Tshiluba yet in the video, two men off-camera speak French and Lingala – a language commonly spoken in the capital and among the security forces – and bark orders in broken Tshiluba, sometimes sounding as if they are talking on a phone. “That’s a big deal,” Stearns said. “It would be strange for outsiders to be involved in this militia.”

As investigators, Catalán and Sharp kept meticulous records, including an audio recording of a meeting with a Kamwina Nsapu elder in a Kananga hotel the day before their murders. Transcripts produced independently by the UN and French broadcaster Radio France Internationale (RFI) show that a crucial exchange was mistranslated: the elder warns the investigators against travel to a town called Bunkonde, since he cannot ensure their safety there. Instead, Catalán and Sharp are told: “You can arrive in Bunkonde, there is nothing … You will pass without problems.”

Their translator, Thomas Nkashama, fixer José Tshibuabua and guide Betu Tshintela collude in the deceit. The next morning Catalán and Sharp headed for Bunkonde, and their deaths.

According to a former colleague, Catalán and Sharp’s main focus in Kasai was not in fact army atrocities and mass graves, but Kamwina Nsapu’s practice of recruiting children and drugging them for battle. However, the attention on mass graves in the weeks before their visit meant there was “a misperception” about their presence in Kasai, one that may have proven deadly.

Soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Democratic republic of the Congo (FARDC) are seen gearing up as gunfire erupts close by on October 07, 2018 outside Oicha.

Subsequent investigations by some UN officials, RFI and others have revealed that those responsible for misleading Catalán and Sharp during the hotel meeting had all worked for Congolese intelligence and security services. “All the people who lied to the experts during that recorded interview were linked in some way with the intelligence service,” RFI’s Sonia Rolley told me.

Documents show that Tshibuabua was a member of the Agence Nationale de Renseignements (ANR), Congo’s national intelligence agency, and a cousin of Tshintela, who had also worked for the agency, while Nkashama was a member of the country’s pervasive immigration-cum-security service, the Direction Générale de Migration (DGM). All three were in touch with local army commander Colonel Jean de Dieu Mambweni.

The meeting was a set-up. “It appears they were deliberately tricked,” Sawyer said. “All of the research we have conducted indicates government involvement, a plot planned by the intelligence services to portray Kamwina Nsapu as terrorists,” and to shift the narrative of atrocities from the army to the militia.

 

At UN headquarters in New York, the first response to the murders of its own people was bureaucratic: a board of inquiry was set up in the weeks after Catalán and Sharp’s bodies were found and narrowly mandated to discover whether proper UN safety procedures had been followed.

The confidential 47-page report was handed over to the Security Council in August 2017. Its account of the killings tracked closely with the Congolese government’s, ignoring the available evidence of state involvement. It found that “the violent acts of a group of Congolese perpetrators, likely militia members from the Kasai province, were responsible for the deaths” of Catalán and Sharp. It mentioned that one of the experts was carrying “relatively large amounts of cash” and suggested that robbery was the motive and blithely concluded that “information circulating regarding the possible involvement of various government individuals or organisations” was insufficient to apportion blame.

Late last year the Swedish broadcaster Sveriges Television revealed an audio recording of the board of inquiry’s head, Greg Starr, telling Catalán and Sharp’s bereaved families that despite the evidence provided by others in the UN, as well as RFI, he did not implicate Congolese officials in his report because there is “a line that I don’t want to cross” in order to keep the investigation going, however inadequate or compromised it was.

“The board of inquiry had access to the recording, to our translation and linguistic analysis of the video, but all the information that we used in our investigation is barely mentioned, or quickly dismissed,” said Rolley of RFI.

Catalán and Sharp’s former UN colleague told me: “I’ve worked through the report from beginning to end and to me they haven’t looked at the translations that they’ve been receiving of what was talked about on the video, or at the meeting the day before.” Instead, the colleague added, the board of inquiry relied on a government-provided translator for the recordings. “For some reason they didn’t want to deal with this.”

United Nation Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (C) upon his arrival to visit an Ebola treatment centre in Mangina, North Kivu province

When the UN made a summary of the report public it was met with dismay. “The board of inquiry bottom line was that Michael and Zaida were partly guilty for their own deaths and the UN did the best job it possibly could in the field and at headquarters,” Stearns said. “This interpretation of the available facts is very sympathetic toward the government but not toward the victims.”

The criticism of the board’s work – including from family members of the deceased – led the UN to send a second team to Congo in late 2017, this time led by Canadian lawyer Robert Petit, a former prosecutor of the Khmer Rouge, tasked to “support” the Congolese prosecution – code for trying to ensure it would not be a sham.

Petit faced obstruction. In a confidential note to the Security Council in April last year, Petit wrote that his team was being stymied and concluded: “It is quite clear that the security apparatus in Kinshasa continues to interfere with the judicial process and controls access to key witnesses and suspects.”

Petit’s is not the first investigation to be hindered by Congolese authorities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Swedish prosecutors were also obstructed by a lack of co-operation: the Swedes wrote in a frustrated statement in November 2017, just as Petit was getting to work, of the “major difficulties with regard to being completely dependent on evidence in Congo and co-operation with Congo is not working”. They could not “rule out that people closely related to the regime in Congo were involved in the murder” of Catalán.

 

The trial at the military court in Kananga began three months after the murders but with only two of the 17 suspects in custody. The men who had misled Catalán and Sharp in the hotel meeting, and been among the last to see them alive, were neither suspects nor witnesses. Hearings were held in fits and starts, with lengthy adjournments and little discernible progress.

A soldier from the Armed Forces of the Democratic republic of the Congo (FARDC), has an early morning smoke at their military base on October 08, 2018 outside Oicha

The rush to trial led UN police, in a confidential briefing note, to bemoan the “lack of rigor and professionalism” displayed by the prosecution while a confidential UN summary of investigations sent to diplomats in Kinshasa raised concerns about the trustworthiness of the prosecution’s main witness, Mukanda, who it described as “an active collaborator” with the army, and a man who had been repeatedly introduced to some UN staff by Congolese army officers during the search for Catalán and Sharp.

But gradually something approaching the truth is coming into focus. In late 2017, during a ten-month adjournment, Tshibuabua and Nkashama – the fixer and translator at the hotel meeting – were taken into custody by Congolese security services (whether to put them on trial or protect them from questioning was unclear as Petit was denied access to them.) Months later the one-time star prosecution witness, Mukanda, was himself arrested after prosecutors scrutinised his phone records, then, in December, Colonel Mambweni was also taken into custody on suspicion of organising the murders. All four have been charged with involvement in the killings.

The trial resumed in mid-September before a higher military court, also in Kasai. There are now 47 suspects, though only 23 are in detention. The others were either never arrested or among a group of five who escaped from prison in May, including the only person to have admitted appearing in the murder video.

But crucially, Mambweni, Mukanda, Nkashama and Tshibuabua are all in the dock, the very men who, for their intelligence and military connections, suspicious behaviour and telephone links, fell under suspicion in confidential internal UN documents just weeks after the murders, long before the first trial hearings and long before the UN’s own deeply flawed inquiry.

 

Catalán’s final call, made half an hour before her death, was to her younger sister, Elizabeth Morseby, at home in Kalmar, Sweden. Catalán did not speak. “I could hear lots of male voices talking and then Zaida breathing in the background,” Morseby told me. “My mother was standing next to me and she was worried immediately.” The call lasted a little more than a minute then cut off.

Bereaved, confused and faced with conflicting information, the families of Catalán and Sharp have been confronted by the very thing the investigators had sought to end. “Zaida wanted to end impunity for perpetrators and that is what we want too, justice not only for Michael and Zaida but for all the people in those graves,” Morseby said. “The ones who killed Michael and Zaida are responsible for that mess over there, murdering their own people. I want them prosecuted, I want them in jail.”

Zaida Catalán and Michael J. Sharp

Even if the colonel and his alleged accomplices are found guilty, who gave the orders? Who else was involved? “We want them to dig deeper,” she said. The families have learned to expect little of the Congolese judiciary and have been dismayed to find the UN credulous of a false narrative and then constrained in their later investigations under Petit.

The failure to find the truth of the murders is tantamount to declaring open season on dozens of UN expert groups, panels and sanctions monitors, all of which work within the sphere of influence of regimes potentially hostile to them.

“It is crucial to get to the bottom of what happened and ensure that the real perpetrators and commanders are held to account,” said Sawyer. “If we don’t, it sends the message that those responsible for such a heinous crime can get away with it, and that sets a dangerous precedent in Congo and across the world.”

Truth and justice would comfort the families, too. “Let’s have some accountability; let’s find out who did this, who ordered this,” Michael’s father, John Sharp, told me. But, showing remarkable forbearance, he urged a pursuit of restorative rather than simply punitive justice. “Let’s see if we can find some kind of redemptive solution that will go towards creating less suffering for the people of Congo,” he said. “More violence isn’t the answer.”

Photographs Getty Images, Courtesy of the families.

Further reading

King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild. A vivid, horrifying history of the colonial exploitation and depredations that primed Congo for what was to come.

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, by Michela Wrong. A foreign correspondent’s superb account of the chaos and comedy of the dying days of Mobutu Sese Seko’s Congo.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, by Jason Stearns. A closely-observed, well-informed and deeply-reported analysis of the interlocking, overlapping wars that led to and followed Mobutu’s ouster.

Radio Congo, by Ben Rawlence. A humane and sensitive travelogue in search of the voices of ordinary folk surviving strife in eastern Congo.